Monday, May 9, 2011

Immanent Criticism of the Immanent Critics

On my blog Interdisciplinary World, I posted a practically identical version of A Culture of Liberty that I titled there as Why I Would Rather Write Poems and Plays. There, a frequent commentor, Winton Bates, made the following observation:

When I think of literature as a spontaneous order, one of the characteristics it seems to have is that it tends to develop in ways that are critical of what writers see as the established order. I can't claim to have thought very deeply about this, but it seems to me that any story with a plot suggesting that all is well with the world would not be particularly interesting. So, that might explain why the culture of liberty declined over the last 150 years or so.

It might also explain why the most popular literature of liberty over this period seems to be forward-looking i.e. suggesting that existing trends are taking us toward a dominant order that will be a serious threat to liberty. Again, I am making generalizations that might not stand up to close scrutiny.

However, if the pattern that I see is an accurate observation, then the question arises of whether we would expect it to continue in future. Perhaps we can expect a lot more interesting stories to emerge from the threats to liberty that people currently face in their daily lives.

Winton lays out a few interesting ideas for papers on the history of literature. Please note that he argues that one of the roles of literature is as immanent criticism of the prevailing order. If the dominant system is captialism (or is perceived to be capitalism), then one should not be surprised to find works of literature criticizing that system. This comes about because, after all, there has to have some sort of problem for there to be a story at all. He also suggests why much literature that is located in the author's present (including the author's lifetime) is often anti-market, while much "libertarian" literature is science fiction.

In times and places where economic liberty is under severe threat, or liberal society has been almost completely destroyed (such at the Soviet Union), so we see more pro-market writers? Keeping in mind censorship and officially recognized literature, of course. Which means we must look to the more underground works, or those of emigres. With the latter, we must also keep in mind that many people do not understand the deep connection between economic liberty and political liberty (you can have the former without the latter, but not the latter without the former), and so end up supporting many of the very economic policies within their adopted country as they were escaping.

This issue of ignorance also raises questions about the nature of immanent criticism. Understanding is not required to engage in such criticism. Much such criticism is in fact done from a great deal of economic ignorance, or from mere folk economics (there's a book there: Folk Economics and Its Influence in Literature). Those economic theories that come closest to folk economics are thus most likely to be supported by the vast majority of people who have not been educated in economics (and, sadly, many who have been schooled in economics -- I refuse to say "educated," since you cannot be educated in economics if you accept folk economics, no matter how much schooling you have). So much immanent criticism is likely to not even be valid. Yet, it can have a profound influence, and drive a culture in illiberal directions. Sad to say, many literary authors have been most guilty of these very things.

Can we expect our literary writers to get the details of economics right? After all, economics is a specialized field of knowledge. The first thing I would point out is that when we read a science fiction novel, we expect the author to get the science right. Physics is a specialized field of knowledge, yet many science fiction authors have learned physics sufficiently well to create realistic works of fiction, that stick to the science. Should we not expect other authors to do the same if they are going to bring up issues of economics in their works? Well, that brings me to my second point, which is that there are certain fields of knowledge -- those typically most deeply intertwined with the human experience -- in which everyone thinks their opinion matters simply because they are human beings. The same person who would not dare express an opinion about the nature of atoms, not knowing any quantum physics, will nevertheless go on and on about how we need to tax companies that outsource jobs, raise the minimum wage, raise trade barriers, etc., even though they are equally ignorant of economics, meaning they don't have the foggiest idea what will really happen if those things were in fact implemented. Everyone is a psychologist, everyone is an economist, everyone is a sociologist, and everyone is a moral philosopher. Point out everyone's ignorance on these things, and you risk the fate of Socrates.

So why, then, should we concern ourselves with the economic opinions of literary writers? We should concern ourselves precisely because they are immanent critics, even if they never intended to be such (typically they did so intend). We need to analyze their views and try to understand why they held them, and the ramifications for what it is they said and represented in their works. The literary Austrian critic must act as the immanent critic of the literary order.

The fact is that critics do in fact influence authors. It is thus important that our kind of criticism take place. It is important to help us understand works of literature, it's true -- but the fact that what we uncover and discover can influence other writers to create more liberal works is of equal importance. I don't want to overemphasize the importance of critics, to be sure. But each work is created from a kaleidoscope of influences -- we should want to be one of those shapely colors.


  1. I think you are right that we should expect literary writers to get the economics right. I tend to just yawn when I think authors are presenting implausible economic scenarios, but they shouldn't be allowed to get away with it.

  2. Indeed. In cases where the author gets the economics wrong, the literary Austrian must be not only a critic in the sense of being an analyst, but a critic in the sense of criticizing as well. Getting the economics wrong is important to issues of mimesis as well.

  3. Gabrielle ShinerMay 13, 2011 at 2:34 PM

    Authors certainly do take on the role of critic and, as you note, they do so in fields they are not qualified to criticize. As you also mention, this is something to worry about because authors can have a profound, and dangerously subtle, impact on their readers.

    Should authors be carrying out this kind of criticism at all? I don't have the quote on hand, but Ayn Rand says something along the lines of - Authors should not represent man as he is, but man as he should and could be. Should authors be taking on the role of journalist, or specialist within a certain field? Fiction serves a unique function, which I believe is much deeper and more fundamental than any form of criticism can be. Perhaps the decline of the culture of liberty is not only reflected in what authors are choosing to represent but also in how they are appraising their own role in society.

    "it seems to me that any story with a plot suggesting that all is well with the world would not be particularly interesting"

    This is probably true, but why don't we see more fiction that glorifies the individual, the creator, human potential, liberty, etc?"Libertarian" literature does not need to be dystopian, sci-fi or fantasy. Most books you come across either glorify the mundane or show individuals who - although they might critique - submit to the existing, collective order. The culture of liberty, to me, is embodied in work that show the potential beauty and strength of individuals and, therefore, humanity.

  4. The author is inevitably going to act as immanent critic precisely because (s)he represents the world -- and is doing so through their particular perceptions of it.

    Rand is of course tweaking Aristotle, who said that fiction is more philosophical than history, because history shows things as they are, whereas fiction shows things as they should or could be. Of course every fiction author represents the world as they think it could be -- and some even attempt to show how it should be.

    So that artist's role as immanent critic comes about precisely in their artistic creations. Their art works are necessarily criticisms of other works or culture or society or ethical norms or the economy, etc.

    I agree that "libertarian" literature does not have to be dystopian, scifi, or fantasy. But it typically is. Even Rand's Atlas Shrugged is scifi (consider Galt's engine and Reardon metal). Certainly Anthem is. And all her works are dystopian. Nevertheless, I don't write in any of those genres (notwithstanding a tragedy that could technically be considered dystopian and fantasy, though the latter comes about in my attempt to play with traditional Greek structure, including in it the element of the satyr play). I would love more mainstream libertarian literature.

  5. Ah, there is the point I was trying to get to, thank you! I know Rand has been hugely influenced by Aristotle, but I didn't want to misquote anyone. I fear that in the state of much of today's art many people seem to undermine the philosophical power of art. Or maybe today's philosophy is largely lacking in fundamental, driving values. It's not too often that I read something that is really inspiring. One day I think we'll see many more libertarian ideals in mainstream art and culture. As long as we always have people committed to defending what art could be, creating, and experimenting.

  6. The key is to get the books into hands and the butts into seats, reading books and watching plays from that perspective. That means having good critics and great artists.